Christmas crackers, coeliac, constraint and creativity

This week, I went for a coffee with my husband. On the table was a Christmas menu card, in the shape of a cracker. Except, it wasn’t actually in the shape of a cracker; it was just a straightforward, straight edged, open-ended cuboid.

What made it look like a cracker was the triangle shape cut out from each corner near the top, and a dark band of colour intersecting the excisions, giving the appearance of the bit at each end of a cracker, where your hand grips when you pull it. Even though each side was completely straight up and down. It was very effective.

My husband is a graphic designer, and he pointed out how the constraints presented by the form, probably chosen for cost reasons, had sparked creativity. It had pushed the designer to come up with something slightly unexpected, when complete freedom of form might have resulted in a more conventionally cracker-shaped object, which would probably have been less engaging.

This is why I enjoy working with poetic forms like the villanelle.

The word villanelle is derived from the Italian villanella – a folk dance or song – stemmed in turn from the Latin villa (farm) via villano (peasant or farm hand). Jean Passerat is credited with the first literary imitation of these rustic songs, in sixteenth century France[1]. Many well-known poets have written villanelles: Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, WH Auden, and Dylan Thomas.

Villanelles are composed of 19 lines of any length, grouped into five tercets (a stanza of three lines) and a quatrain (four lines). It has two rhymes: the tercets rhyme aba; in other words the first and third lines rhyme. The quatrain rhymes abaa. It helps to actually see these principles put into practice: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas  is a famous and very effective use of the form

But what makes the villanelle interesting, I think, is not structure but repetition. The first and third lines of stanza 1 are repeated in the other stanzas in a set pattern. Line 1 ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is repeated as line 6. Line 3 ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ as line 9. This happens again as lines 12 and 15. In the quatrain, these two lines together conclude the poem.

This allows the poet to play around creating subtly different meanings for those significant lines, using the rest of the stanza. For example, in  Sylvia Plath’s Mad Girl’s Love Song, sometimes the line ‘I shut my eyes and all drops dead’ is the start of something happening, when followed by ‘I lift my lids and all is born again’, for instance. Other times, its meaning is an ending, reflecting its position at the end of a stanza: ‘And arbitrary blackness gallops in / I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead’. When I write in this form, I am often surprised by the creativity that is ignited by the need to find words that rhyme and also that make logical and lyrical sense.

This villanelle was inspired by another constraint requiring creativity: adapting a sticky port gravy recipe, so my coeliac mum can enjoy it. It’s a bit rushed and unsubtle, I dashed it off while making the gravy (I didn’t want to get too absorbed and leave the ‘bits’ to get to the wrong side of burnt!) starting with a few lines from the recipe itself, which kept referring to the ingredients as ‘bits’. I played around with the tenses, and changed one or two words on the repeated lines so it makes sense. When I have more time, I might go back and improve it.

 

[1] Lyric Forms from France, by Helen Louise Cohen)

How to Make Science Child-Friendly

We are delighted to present an article by Samantha Gouldson, science writer, author and blogger, on writing about science for children.

In May 2014 I was approached by Lynn Schreiber, the founder and editor of the online children’s magazine Jump!. We’d been chatting on Twitter for a while and during one of our conversations I’d explained the concept of gravitational waves, which had recently been in the news. Lynn asked if I’d be interested in writing occasional articles about science for the magazine, which is aimed at tweens and early teens. Sure, I said. No problem. Never one to turn down a challenge, I decided to write the first article about the latest developments in quantum entanglement. If I could make quantum physics understandable for 8-14 year olds, I reasoned, I could explain anything.

That article was published in early June 2014. Since then I’ve written many more articles for Jump! magazine, covering subjects as varied as space exploration, climate change, medical advances and how fast Santa actually has to fly in order to make all his deliveries (about 39,000 miles per minute, if you were wondering). I’ve also written science articles for my own website, for Jump! Parents and recently for the Let Clothes Be Clothes campaign.

 

Writing about science for children is both very easy and incredibly difficult. If you ignore all the specialised terminology and acronyms, most science is actually fairly simple when you get down to the basics. Explaining the basic ideas is easy; once I’ve done that, explaining the more complex science built upon them is also pretty easy. The difficulties arise when I need to do both simultaneously, while also keeping my writing concise and interesting. There’s usually a lot of drafting and re-drafting involved, as well as many cups of tea!

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When I’m writing I try to imagine the article as a conversation with a child; I often divide it into sections, each headed by a question that a child would be likely to ask at that point. This keeps me focused and ensures that I cover everything relevant without becoming too long-winded. I use illustrations, diagrams and photographs, both to aid the explanation and to break up the article so it doesn’t seem intimidating to less able readers.

I’m inspired by scientific magazines and websites as well as the news, but most of my work stems from questions I’m asked by children. Some of them are asked in person, some via Twitter or my Facebook page, and some via friends who are teachers. Children are naturally curious with a voracious appetite for knowledge, and I love helping them learn.

 

Samantha Gouldson is the author of 12 Science Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do and 12 Awesome Women of Science You’ve Never Heard Of

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Bilingualism in Literature

There are two things that could be meant by bilingualism in literature. First of all, it could mean featuring a bilingual character in an otherwise monolingual book, or in some way working a mention of it into the story. Secondly, and I suspect this is the meaning that will spring to most people’s minds, it could refer to a book that has been written in two languages. This could be a text with the same story in either language on opposite pages, or it could be a story that has been purposely written in two languages. Here, we shall look at the first issue.

In the first instance, I think it is important for there to be bilingual characters in literature. Bilingualism is a normal part of life. There are in fact more bilinguals in the world than there are monolinguals, so it is hardly an unusual phenomenon – and even if it were, that would be no reason to exclude it from literature.

Starting from the beginning, from children’s literature, I believe that it is good for children to have characters and situations in books that they can fully relate to. There have been movements to get representation for children with special needs in literature,movements which I fully support and agree with. It is important for children to be able to identify with literary role models; therefore why should bilingual children not be able to identify with a bilingual character?

Not only that, but also monolingual children can benefit: firstly from the normalising of bilingualism, so that they do not consider their bilingual peers unusual or abnormal in any way; and secondly because such devices in literature can help to expose monolingual children to languages, and the idea that it is possible to speak more than one language fluently. Who knows, it may even spark an interest in the language in question and help them on the road to their own linguistic mastery. This is something that is addressed by a few authors, such as Millie Slavidou in her Instaexplorer series, all of which contain something of the local language.

As we go on to adult literature, it is again important to present something that is a normal part of everyday life for so many people. There has in the past, and still in some instances today, been a lot of prejudice against bilingualism. Despite a wealth of evidence pointing to the benefits of bilingualism, parents were and are frequently advised to drop one of their home languages in favour of the dominant community language.

Against such a tide of negativity, literature can play a role in redressing the balance. Normal, ordinary bilingual characters, who are not superheroes or super polyglots, but just regular, believable people, can help to present a positive face of bilingualism. They can help to normalise it in the subconscious of the readers. This is quite apart from the fact that it makes for good reading, as it reflects the reality of the world we live in.

For writers, it can be a very useful plot device. As a multilingual myself, I have frequently been in the middle of situations where I am the only one who has understood everything from all sides, including humour that has left one set of monolinguals baffled while the others roar with laughter. Imagine putting your character in the midst of something like that: what intrigue and mystery could thereby be created!

 

Christmas in Greece

December is here and Advent is underway. As Christmas approaches and the festivities get into swing, I am happy to have the chance to experience two cultures this year.

Christmas in Evros, a little corner of northeastern Greece, reveals a rich patchwork of traditions. From the folklore tales of the kalikantzaroi, mischievous sprites and goblins that come out into the world at Christmas time to cause trouble, to the fabulous tradition of τα εννια φαγιά, the nine dishes, this is a warming place to be at Christmas time.

Foodies may appreciate traditional Greek Christmas treats, like kourabiedes, a kind of sugary biscuit, or the syrupy pastry diples. My personal favourite is the melomakarono, the consistency of which is a cross between a biscuit and a cake. You can have it as syrupy or as dry as you like, and the walnuts on the top add a gorgeous flavour.

In Greece, the Christmas tree has arrived only comparatively recently to adorn the season. The tradition has instead for a long time been to decorate a boat, and these days you can see Christmas boats outlined in lights too. Often they are placed in public squares right next to or opposite a Christmas tree.

One tradition that I particularly like in Alexandroupoli, the largest town in Evros, is the camel at the New Year. In the centre of town, usually amid a crowd of spectators, you can find a wonderful sort of street pantomime.

new year camel

Two people will be in a camel costume – one for the front legs and the other for the back. They caper about, chased by the camel driver, and all the while a band plays and a group of people wearing traditional costumes dance local folk dances, with the camel and driver weaving in and out of their midst. It is great fun to watch.

You can live through these and other traditions in my book, Christmas in Greece.

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Continuing the story of Lucy the InstaExplorer, this book transports young readers, pre-teens and young teens, into a magical season of traditions and festivities, as Lucy struggles to learn the language while discovering local Christmas folklore and sampling its delicacies.

Christmas in Greece is available here:

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